Kelci Kosin, Ball State University
Being a college student is hard sometimes. Add the uncertainties of a pandemic to the equation, and the lists of challenges becomes even more daunting for students. As an academic advisor, I have seen how these challenges have nearly blinded students from seeing what is ahead. This has been a challenge in the field of academia and higher education as well. The emphasis on retention has become an even greater focus and concern for many institutions across the country as students question the logistics of attending classes in the midst of a pandemic. I have often found myself unsure on how to best advise my students this year, especially while recognizing how very individualized each student’s needs are, but I have also recognized how opportune this season is to remind students of their purpose in hopes of guiding them through challenging times in academia. Identifying personal and professional strengths has been crucial in giving me the confidence to face the current challenges surrounding me and my students.
Academic advisors build relationships and work to find an understanding with students on the direction they have with their academic, career, and personal goals. Furthermore, advisors seek to inspire students while giving them the tools to build confidence and self-efficacy (Smothers, 2020). In fall 2020, I started the “Why Project.” In efforts to truly understand and get to know the needs of my student load, I have asked that each student share their why statement with me via email. The why statement challenges students to think about their purpose and their motivation to pursue their declared major. This statement also gives me the information to connect with each student as they navigate their academic career and manage major academic obstacles.
I advise students in the arts, specifically music majors, so I asked them to specify why they choose the arts, an academic path that can be very rewarding but also demanding of time, talent, and energy. The responses were so honest and generous. I discovered that many of my students choose music because it makes them feel complete. Music is their identity and many of these students, one example being the anonymous response below, have always known that their careers would somehow be linked to music.
I truly believe music has the power to change this crazy, stressful world we live in. And it starts one child's life at a time. I want to teach, inspire, and get children involved in music, while building confident leaders of tomorrow. I want to be there for all kids, no matter their disability or family life, even if other teachers/people/friends won't.
This student shared their interest in music and assisting students with exceptionalities, such as autism. This why statement and the student’s willingness to share personal interests allowed me to share a fantastic campus resource offered at Ball State University, The Prism Project, and to share my similar interests. In general, asking these students to share and explore their why statements with me has opened a door that has allowed me to communicate with students in a meaningful way, especially during a time in which in-person advising appointments are not an option. I also received responses that were blunt and less dreamy. Some students expressed that they simply could not articulate their why statement and I took this as an opportunity to help them define or at least seek their why statement.
I’ll be honest. I don’t think I can come up with a good reason why I love music or why I want to continue studying music. Studying and playing music has been a constant in my life for the past 10 years. I started piano lessons at 8 years old and have only gotten more involved with music. Because of this, I can’t say with certainty that I chose to be a music major because I love music (at least not in the way I feel other music majors love it). I believe the reason I chose music as a major is because I feel I have been successful at it and it has been a focal point of the majority of my life.
This student’s response gave me the opportunity to ask questions and start a conversation which led the student to articulate how music has shaped their academic path and really solidify why they choose music. The student’s initial email response became a week-long exchange of emails in which I was able to learn more about the student and their background.
I initially asked students this question, what is your why, in hopes of motivating students to question and discover their academic purpose, but I discovered that this approach is an excellent way to connect with students in a thoughtful and individualized manner. Asking students about their purpose and motivation can open the door for advisors to connect and empower students while providing quality advising (Delmas, 2002). It can also be a resourceful way to put NACADA core values (2017) into action. While reading through responses, I thought about advisors’ commitment to NACADA core values and in this instance, my interactions with students was a commitment to the following core values.
- Empowerment: motivating, encouraging, and supporting students and the greater educational community to recognize their potential, meet challenges, and express individuality.
- Caring: responding to students in ways that challenge, support, nurture, and teach.
- Integrity: acting intentionally through honesty, transparency, and accountability to the student.
- Commitment: dedicating excellence to all dimensions of student success.
While each of the seven NACADA core values apply, these four seemed to resonate as I worked with students to discover and explore their why statement. I encourage advisors to take time to create a Why Project of their own and let this be the path that motivates advisors to learn more about each of their student advisees, share campus resources, and truly understand the NACADA core values that shape academic advisors globally. There is no formal model to a Why Project. I would recommend exploring communication that works best with your student advisee population. The lasting impact of seeking to know students more is an investment in their long term academic and personal success.
I plan to hold on to the student responses I have received this semester. I plan to review each of them carefully so that I can better advise my students on a personal and individualized level. I plan to reference their why statements in moments in which they need a reminder or moment of clarity as to why they choose this particular path in higher education, and I plan to reference it when they face inevitable challenges that blind them from the academic goals and long-term professional visions ahead.
School of Music
Ball State University
Delmas, P. (2002, June). The 'quality' in advising. Academic Advising Today, 25(2). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/The-Quality-in-Advising.aspx
NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. (2017). NACADA core values of academic advising. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Pillars/CoreValues.aspx
Prism Project. Ball State University. https://www.bsu.edu/academics/collegesanddepartments/music/about-us/community-outreach/prism-project
Smothers, A. (2020, March). Explaining academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(1). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Explaining-Academic-Advising.aspx
Cite this article using APA style as: Kosin, K. (2021, March). The “why” project: Helping students to define and value their academic purpose. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). [insert url here]